005: The Aftershocks of Abuse
Tyler Miller shares a difficult story about growing up in a household with a parent that was a survivor of abuse. He covers the challenges of growing up hating his mother, only to find that this hate was misplaced. The learning that takes place from her survival changed Tyler's life forever.
Trigger Warning: This post contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to some survivors.
"The Aftershocks of Abuse," Tyler Miller
Growing up as a child, my mom and I had a very contentious relationship. For some reason we just didn’t get along – and some of that was my feeling of insecurity – like there was something wrong with me in my own mom’s eyes. I wasn’t the easiest kid to deal with, always looking for loop holes, wanting to battle for control with my mom. But I always felt she treated me like the enemy, like somehow what she was suffering was my fault.
It started with being blamed for medical issues. She would constantly tell me “Well, I never had these medical problems until you came along.”
But it wasn’t just my mom – my dad was pretty difficult to deal with as well. He had a major anger issue, and we would often get into physical altercations over little things. Both he and my mom seemed to explode over things – and they would deal with it, walk away, and then come back angrier than before.
Most of my own anger was placed towards my dad at first, mostly because my mom would defer to him when it came to discipline, or when I would say something and it would trigger a major reaction – (and I never understood why).
Another area of frustration was my relationship with my maternal grandfather. You see, my mom’s mother and father had been divorced. I had a strong relationship with my grandmother and her new husband (who was a rabbi), but I had spent NO time with my grandfather. I never understood why. I remember the time I did spend with him being good – I did see him occasionally, but felt like my mom didn’t want me to spend time with him – and as a kid this made me extremely angry. When I turned 13, I remember there was a battle over whether I could invite him to my Bar Mitzvah (a jewish ritual for boys to become men). Ultimately my mom capitulated and allowed me to invite him. I did, but he didn't come. In my mind this was because of my mom.
Anger between my dad and my mom and I (and my younger brother) continued for a long time. My own anger towards the family dynamics only escalated.
This went on until I was 15. It saddens me to look back at the fact that I was still being hit with a wooden slotted spoon or my dad’s belt until I was 15. I saw my dad as a monster; I saw my mom as weak and angry. I had no respect for either one of them.
Then my dad passed away suddenly when I was 15. I’ll never forget the moment – I actually knew it happened before I was told about it. I was at wrestling practice; it was snowing. My dad was supposed to come pick me up, but I knew he wasn’t going to come. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. When wrestling practice was over, I called my mom to come pick me up, but she didn’t want to get me. She told me to wait for my father. I told her it was getting late and I didn’t think he was coming. This was in the days before cell phones or pagers, so there really was no way to know for sure. My mom came and picked me up, and when we got home, I went outside to shovel snow, which was my job. I knew at that moment somehow that I wouldn’t see my dad again. That is when she told me to come into the house, and then told me my father passed away.
What was strange for me is that I felt relief, not sadness. Relief that the abuse was over. Relief that I could be free. And in my 15 year old mind, I watched as my mom “went off the deep end.” I saw a woman who could not function. She was a single mom raising two teenage boys (my brother was 11 at the time). Not just that, I was a difficult kid.
The beginning of the end for my mom and I started when she tried to get me into counseling.
She pushed counseling. Said I needed it. I told her I felt fine. I felt happy. I felt relief. She said those could not be the feelings I felt. One time, when I refused to go to counseling, she picked up a coat hanger to try and hit me with it. I immediately pulled the coat hanger out her hands and told her she wouldn’t do that to me. She couldn’t do that to me. I think she was genuinely more and more scared.
Another time she fought with me and threw the car keys at me, slicing open my head, which put me in the hospital for the first time with stitches. She had become more violent, more extreme. Her only threat to me to get me to do what she wanted me to (that ever really worked) was to threaten making me a ward of the court.
Let me be clear—I was a jerk to my mom. Mostly because she couldn’t take care of herself, and felt like I needed to fight for survival. But I was not easy for her to deal with.
Eventually, school counselors encouraged me to go to counseling – if only for my mom’s benefit. I started going and it was awful. I remember the counselor trying to get my mom and I in the same room together, and I wanted no part of it. I explained she was “nuts” and I was ok – there was nothing wrong. I explained that I needed to do what I was doing to survive. He encouraged us to meet with my mom so I could share with her how I was feeling, and he would remain neutral. I finally agreed and it was a disaster.
The counselor took my mom’s side and asked why I couldn’t be nicer to my mom? Why couldn’t I just obey my mom? I felt violated and betrayed. So the next week, when my mom told me to get in the car for counseling, I refused. She threatened to make me a ward of the court again. She picked up the phone and started dialing. I immediately ripped the phone out of the wall (looking back I had anger issues because my world was crumbling around me) and told her I wasn’t going to counseling again.
She left and called the police on me, who took me in the back of their squad car to a mental health facility. This is where things started to change for the worse. This was my first foray into the mental health system, and it wasn’t positive. In the waiting area, someone else said to me – whatever you do, do not tell them you want to hurt yourself or anyone else. Everything will be okay as long as you don't say that. I took that advice to heart. My mom was at a loss when they told her that unless I committed myself, there was nothing they could do. My mom was in tears as they released me, and we had a quiet car ride home.
I hadn’t been angry with my dad’s passing, but I was angry now. Angry at my mom for not being able to take care of me. We both decided I couldn’t live at home and decided on boarding school – my first foray into the residential living experience. It was cool for me – I got to live in a co-ed boarding school with other high school students – like going to college two years before I graduated high school.
My relationship with my mom didn't improve, but at least I was at boarding school. I got a job to help gain my independence, and then I broke all connection with my mom my senior year of high school. On top of that, I decided to go to college 3,000 miles away at UC Santa Barbara.
Through this process, I learned a lot. I became a Resident Advisor, and did some training on sexual assault that would ultimately change my life. Things with my mom started to get a little better with some time and distance, but there was always a blockage. Then, during a phone conversation, she dropped some information that would ultimately change my life.
She shared that her father had molested her as a child.
This one piece of information was life changing. Suddenly EVERYTHING made sense to me. I knew the moment my mom told me that it was true, because her reactions were textbook from the training I had received on how sexual assault survivors cope.
She also shared that while in college she was also raped, which studies show is more likely for children molested as a child. But in this moment, my mom went from an angry, unhappy jerk, to a woman who had survived. My dad went from being a monster, to being my mom’s savior, rescuing her from her family and her father. I finally saw that when my father passed away, so did my mom’s entire bedrock of living.
We talked for a long time that night, and my own life made so much more sense.
Counseling was a huge help towards dealing with my own anger – which had transferred away from my father and mother, and onto my grandfather. I believed this man was responsible for ruining my entire childhood. I wrote him a letter confronting him on what had happened. I asked my mom for permission first, which she granted. I sent the letter off and heard nothing back.
My anger grew and grew until my faith brought me to a place of ultimately needing to decide whether I would hold onto that anger for the rest of my life, or forgive him. I could not forgive him for what he did to my mom – that was not my forgiveness to grant.
But I forgave him for the impact his crime had on my life. The consequences were many, but even so, I started to ask questions about his childhood, his experiences with his father, my great-grandfather. I learned his childhood was awful. He was abused and treated badly. As bad as he was, his father had been worse. It was a cycle of violence impacting my entire family for multiple generations.
When this came out, my grandmother didn’t react well to hearing this from her daughter. She believed my mom was lying. She went through the standard “Why is this coming out 40 years later?” kinds of questions. My mom and grandmother never spoke again. I had relationships with both of them , and worked with my grandmother through how sexual assault and the aftermath affect survivors. I had been trained as a sexual assault educator, and was certified as a Sexual Assault Counselor in California, so I was able to help my grandmother understand. She eventually did come to believe what my mom had said was true, but not soon enough to salvage her relationship with her daughter.
My mom felt betrayed that I would choose to continue a relationship with my grandmother; my mom had cut her out and she wanted me to do the same. I was unwilling to do this, and my relationship with my mom suffered because of it: one more legacy of a childhood destroyed by molestation. My mom had to take the approach of cutting negativity out of her life, and because I chose to continue a relationship with her mother - who had rejected her - she cut me out of her life once again. I continued to try and reach out to my mom, who I respect so much because of what she has been through, but the breach was never healed, unfortunately. She passed away of cancer when my oldest daughter was 6 months old. She never got to meet her first grandchild.
Now I'm left to find my own healing, which comes in part by acknowledging the cycle of violence in our family and working to actively stop it. For a long time I was scared to have children for fear I might end up like my grandfather. But through counseling, through faith, and through relationships with mentors, I began to see I had choices to make; it wasn't "in the genes." I have since been blessed with FIVE daughters – which I do not think is a coincidence. I look at my daughters and wonder how my grandfather could have done what he did. But as I look at each generation before me, I see that all of us have worked to “do it better” than the parents before us. Sadly, their better wasn't good enough; I hope my daughters grow up to feel mine was.
I can see now and say wholeheartedly that my mom and dad did the best they could with what they had. I know now they were the best parents they could be, and I love them dearly for the hard work they put into raising my brother and me. My mom was a single mom – and was able to keep us alive, clothe us, feed us, and get us where we needed to be, despite the fact that her entire world crumbled when my dad died.
Looking back, I am thankful for the experiences I had as a kid growing up; they have shaped me as an adult and taught me to always look beyond the surface to the pain that someone may be going through. I have learned to give people the benefit of the doubt when I see unhealthy behavior. So many things come down to perspective: do we see the whole picture, or are we missing key information, like I was for so many years? Looking at my mom in retrospect has taught me that we need to assume the best about others and understand that life is a journey. None of us are finished yet – and that is one of the biggest lessons I have been taught going through this.
About the art:
Tyler is an incredible friend and colleague to both Katy and me. He is an admirable sharer and giver of life. His energy is infectious, and his wittiness and ability to be the most keen person in the conversation are incomparable.
When he reached out to share this story, he wasn't sure if it is what we wanted for this project. But as he explained the situation a bit more, we felt it perfectly fell into our mission.
No one decides how you get to survive except for yourself. And survival takes on many different forms, especially when much of the trauma or experiences occur at a much younger age. In Tyler's case, becoming an adult and learning more about his mother and HER survival aided in HIS survival.
In understanding the reality of his mother's journey, Tyler was able to alter the future of his own - which is why Tyler told me he wanted a quote that related to the journey of life. So I came across this quote and felt it personified Tyler's story. The colors were chosen as a calming source of inspiration that Tyler could hang proudly in his home as a reminder of both his mom's journey and his own.
Thank you for sharing this piece, Tyler. I hope it inspires others to do the same.